Cyber-Bullying/E.D., PA

Duty to Defend Even When Insured’s Actions Intentional if the Resultant Harm was Unforeseeable

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, applying Pennsylvania law, denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by State Farm in a declaratory judgement action in which State Farm argued that it had no duty to defend policyholders in a suit brought by the parents of a young girl who committed suicide after being bullied by the insureds’ son.  The court found that while the underlying acts of bullying were intentional, the resulting suicide was unintentional and unforeseen from the perspective of the insured and, thus, represented an “accident” within the terms of the policy.

Julia Morath, a high school student, committed suicide days after being verbally attacked multiple times by Zach Trimbur via text and other electronic means.  Morath’s parents sued Trimbur and his parents for negligence, and Trimbur’s parents sought coverage for the suit from their State Farm homeowner’s insurance policy.  State Farm commenced defense in the underlying suit with a reservation of rights and filed this declaratory judgement action seeking a judgement that the harm to Morath was not an “occurrence” warranting coverage under the policy because it was an intentional act.

The court examined several lines of cases in Pennsylvania insurance coverage jurisprudence. Among them were multiple cases involving simple assaults where an insured was denied defense coverage for suits arising from the insured’s intentional tortious acts when those intentional acts were the only basis for the suit.  In those cases, the insured’s intentional acts did not constitute an “accident,” which was required for coverage in each of the policies.  The court in this case distinguished these cases by pointing out that while Trimbur’s acts were intentional, Morath’s suicide was an “intervening event” that was not foreseen or intended by Trimbur.

The court also examined more complex cases, in which a third party caused the bodily harm that was the subject of the suit.  In each of those cases, when a third party harmed a plaintiff, and the plaintiff sued an insured for the insured’s negligence that, in whole or in part, caused or allowed the third party to harm the plaintiff, the courts examined the foreseeability of the harm from the perspective of the insured.

In the instant case, the court found this second set of cases more persuasive, even though the harm inflicted on Morath was inflicted by herself, not a third party.  The court noted that the underlying lawsuit against the insured did not include allegations of any intentional torts, only negligence claims.  The court explicitly left open the question of what would have resulted had the underlying lawsuit included intentional tort claims.  The court could not “conclusively find that death by suicide is foreseeable from [Trimbur’s] cyberbullying[.]”  The court therefore denied State Farm’s motion.  State Farm Fire and Casualty Company v. Motta, No. 18-3956 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 11, 2018).